IRVINE, Calif. — Six months ago, as the Los Angeles Rams celebrated winning Super Bowl LVI with the usual parade and pep rally, their top front office executive took a cheeky victory lap of his own.
Les Snead, the Rams’ general manager, built the team’s win-or-bust roster with trades for quarterback Matthew Stafford and other key players by offloading 12 of Los Angeles’s draft picks ahead of last season. Most observers viewed it as an all-in bet that the Rams could win now, not wait to build a team based on potential. Basking in the victory at the parade, Snead wore a T-shirt that bore his face and the profanity laced internet meme about his view of draft picks that emerged around him and his aggressive approach.
The Rams’ bold methodology cut against conventional approaches to roster construction in the N.F.L., where draft picks are typically coveted because they allow teams to sign potentially impactful players at the lowest salaries allowed.
Snead may have forced a reassessment. Eight teams — one-fourth of N.F.L. clubs — entered the 2022 draft without a first-round selection. They included the Miami Dolphins and the Las Vegas Raiders, teams that gave up picks in exchange for receivers Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams this off-season.
Quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan, who each had led teams to Super Bowl appearances, were also traded for picks, with Wilson landing with the Denver Broncos and Ryan with the Indianapolis Colts.
As other teams follow the Rams’ blueprint, Snead will try to keep the team competitive without a first-round draft pick until 2024 as its highly paid stars age. In an interview during training camp, Snead talked about how he actually evaluates draft picks, what he thinks is behind other teams’ aggressive personnel moves and how he assesses when the prime of a player’s career is over.
The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Did you enjoy becoming a meme?
I’m intentionally not on social media, but the teenagers had fun with it. It didn’t surprise me that it took off because we ended up winning the Super Bowl. Heck, it might have taken off if we had gone in the other direction and lost. Social media is good at that, right? Making fun of you to an extent. It’s an easy thing to catch fire. But I do think there’s an element of shallowness to it.
What were the biggest factors to persuading Aaron Donald not to retire? [Donald, a seven-time All-Pro defensive tackle, considered retiring at 30 before signing a contract extension that made nearly $46 million of its $95 million total payable in bonuses over three years.]
Sean [McVay, the coach of the Rams] and him have a good relationship, so I think they were able to talk about big picture, life, football and talk through things. I think myself and the front office, talking with his reps, were really: “OK, if Aaron wants to play football, then really it’s on us to figure out a way to get the money right. Aaron, shouldn’t retire because of us.” The third part, and I think Aaron did a really nice job, is because he was actually honest and said, “Look, I know I got three years.” Then it’s working creatively to be able to reward Aaron, but also engineer a contract where if he does retire in three years, it doesn’t punish the club for the future.
How does Donald’s impending retirement affect how you build the defense?
We’re never having another Aaron Donald, so we shouldn’t look for that. What we should do is figure out other ways to pressure the quarterback. But replacing Aaron Donald? That’s a fruitless call.
Last year, the motto seemed to be ‘All In.’ After winning the Super Bowl, is the team’s sense of urgency the same?
A phrase we’ve been throwing around is “Attack Success.” We’ve really been all in since 2017; it wasn’t just last year. Once we broke through, we realized we’ve got a special head coach and play caller, difference makers on the offensive side of the ball and have always had a salty defense. Let’s attack this window, and we’re still going to attack it.
How do you marry being aggressive and trading first-round picks while also using later-round picks to your advantage?
We were aware that we were in this window and had an opportunity to contend. Now we have this subset of draft picks. [Twelve of the Rams’ 22 starters in the Super Bowl were drafted by the team.] What’s the most effective way to use them? It means you can trade back and collect more draft picks, which we do a lot.
The neat thing about our system is when we draft a rookie, we’re not necessarily relying on him to start. We can develop and bring him along. So I would say that the new meme that will not become a meme would really be that the Rams “focus on the draft picks.”
What’s your take on other teams making more bold trades this off-season?
If that’s the case, I think they’re doing it because we actually won the world championship. So, selfishly, I’m glad we won the world championship and if teams think what we did can offer them some version of a blueprint. But I do think in the last five to 10 years, teams have started to do things differently and attack their windows or attack their rebuilds. I’m not saying it was just us — maybe what we’ve done accelerated it — but there’s been a trend of teams being less conservative.
If it wasn’t you, then what do you think caused it?
Some would say there’s a younger, maybe less traditional group of head coaches and general managers. Maybe it’s the influx of analytics. It just might be teams realizing that maybe we’re more in a microwaveable time in that the five-year plan is maybe outdated. Can you get this thing done in a two-year plan? I think you’ve got to add to the element of the players, too. Some are saying: “Wait a minute, I’m in my prime and I’m not sure this is the place to be. Could you move me to a place that I could win?” There’s a lot of factors.
When do you think you’ll start to realize that the championship window is dwindling, and how will you manage that?
It could be as simple as we start to lose more games. But I think where we’re at is realizing when you have players in their primes, that means that maybe more than half of their career is over. At that point in time, it’s on us to kind of monitor where someone could be dropping off. That doesn’t necessarily mean you now might replace them. It could mean that he gets less reps. It might mean that he practices less. How do you keep it going? And you’re always going to try to fill your holes when necessary.